place holder

Orwell Corollary

Posted on

I happened to be reading a book by Brian Christian called The Most Human Human 1, which deals a lot with human language, when I wrote that last blog post/rant about the way musicians talk and write about music. In the book, Christian cites a George Orwell essay called Politics and the English Language. I happen to like Orwell, so I checked it out. I found a couple of passages that I thought related to my last post so I thought I’d share.

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Orwell is demonstrating how “ugly and inaccurate” language affects politics, but I think it affects the arts as well. By writing thoughtlessly about music, our language becomes less meaningful. Without meaningful language to describe music, we will conceive and thus create thoughtless music. Orwell posits that this kind of writing “consists less and less of WORDS chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of PHRASES tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” (emphasis in original)

He gives five examples of what he calls typical political writing and then lists several common shortfalls demonstrated in the examples. Two of them, “pretentious diction” and “meaningless words” are my biggest pet peeves in arts writing. I won’t copy them here; you can check out the essay for yourself. The underlying issue is that people are just putting these word-Legos together because they fist, not because they make a worthwhile thought.

As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing, is that it is easy. It is easier–even quicker, once you have the habit–to say IN MY OPINION IT IS A NOT UNJUSTIFIABLE ASSUMPTION THAT than to say I THINK.

See! George agrees with me!

Notes:

  1. The Most Human Human is about an annual computer science competition called the Loebner Prize, in which software developers compete in the Turing Test. Alan Turing proposed the test in 1950 as a standard for evaluating a computer’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior by conversing with a human. Christian discusses what the research involved in developing these chat bots tells us about what it means to be human.